Originally, one of my reasons for coming to India was to take Ayang Rinpoche's phowa course. For those who aren't up on the Tibetan vajrayana practice, phowa (pho-ba) connotes "transference"; more specifically, in the context of Tibetan Buddhism it refers to training the ejection of consciousness from the body to (at least) a better rebirth, rebirth in Amitabha's Western Realm, or full-on enlightenment. I have received the transmission several times, done the practice several times and regarded it as good mind training (and headache inducing...oh, and for what it's worth, the first time I practiced, I came down with the mother of all colds; I've been told these are signs of attainment and perhaps small prices to pay, but man, I can't think of any other practice that requires a day of rest after doing it...except for drinking a lot....)
One of the issues that has presented itself during my pilgrimage, which this actually is, is that I've had to question what exactly the relationship to the more esoteric Indo-Tibetan approaches to what we have of the Buddha's teachings in the Pali canon and even the later Mahayana sutras is. His Holiness the Dalai Lama spent some time both in Dharamsala and in Bodhgaya reiterating that the sutras and tantras were teachings that Shakyamuni gave in his very lifetime. This is where the pragmatic me who studies Buddhist history and analyzes texts parts company with the me who loves mythology and the deeper truths that myths contain. Yes, it could be said that Buddha taught the tantras on another plane, in another world-system, etc., but it doesn't speak to the issue directly that he didn't teach them to humans on this very plane.
The issue is compounded by being one of faith versus historicity. This happens in other religions, but in Tibetan Buddhism, claims fly pretty thick for the primacy of tantra over all other approaches and the push for some kind of continuity from the historical Buddha down through (somehow, where is Samantabhadra in this line of descent) Padmasambhava in the Nyingma or down through the mahasiddhas to sarma traditions stretches credulity.
I once had a discussion with one of my tai chi teachers to the effect that sometimes we have to draw the line somewhere between what we believe and what we discover empirically (in this context, it had to do with Zhangsangfeng as the founder of taijiquan, if memory serves). I have no problem with primordial buddhas, but I have a huge one with repeated claims about how certain teachings came into this world that run counter to discoveries in anthropology, archaeology and other fields, particularly when what we have as received tradition has some pretty powerful stuff anyway, regardless of where it's from. But even this leaves me questioning; is it germane to my path, to my journey?
It is this last that has me thinking twice about my engagement with Tibetan Buddhism. At some point, I need to sit back and get "back to basics" or better yet, get back to the path that leads from suffering that Shakyamuni set forth. And I don't necessarily believe that he taught tantra. I don't buy that he taught the Kalachakra, in particular.
Regarding phowa, this is something different, with a lineage that begins with Padmasambhava in the Nyingma and the Drikung Kagyu; while I find that it does seem to be one of those containers of so many other practices, is it Buddhism? This opens up another line of question that is not unrelated to what I have in mind.
I would argue that, yes, the more esoteric practices of Tibetan Buddhism may not have been taught by the historical Buddha, but that these are cultural practices that go very far back (with phowa, to India, at least, since it's one of the six yogas of Naropa, and we can perhaps assume that the lineage that was passed on originally stemming from Padmasambhava may have been an oral instruction that predated his arrival); but the critical point is that the Tibetans were smart, savvy and intellectually adept enough to overlay on these practices the critical work of the various Madyamika schools. This leads to another - though I consider it to be less so - thorny issue: did Shakyamuni teach the Middle Way that Nagarjuna introduced more formally centuries after Buddha's parinirvana? Frankly, I think so. Actually, I'm pretty certain he did, even if it's not codified or made explicit until the rise of the sutras and Nagarjuna.
So where does this leave me? Weeeell, frankly, back to where I came from. I started with the Dhammapada, I started with the Pali canon and moved up through the sutras; my practice was originally nothing more than shamatha and vipashyana and variants on approaches found in Zen (Korean and Japanese). And it leaves me with no issues with vajrayana in another way; it's a stretch, perhaps to say this, but there would be no "Buddhistic overlay" on tantra (both Indian and Tibetan and for that matter, in China and Japan) if it were not for the historical Buddha laying down his teachings. My main concern is something I'll be saying over and over again: does it work? If tantra works, then that's all that matters. And by work, I mean everything from helping ease people's suffering to that full-on enlightenment referenced above.
I can also here my Tibetan teachers shaking their heads; you came all the way around the world with the possibility of receiving teachings from the greatest living phowa teacher and you only attended the first day? Yeah, I did; because I can't fake it. And I'm taking full responsibility for it. I know more than one of those teachers would claim I was obscured by maras or demons; another might be closer to the truth if he said my faith isn't so strong; but at the end of the day, it's both simpler and more complicated than that. I just really don't know that phowa, like so many other practices is meaningful without the context of bodhicitta.
I have much more to go on about this, but to me, it's telling, especially after having been to the cave where Siddhartha came out from his ascetic self-torture, after spending so much time in Bodhgaya, going to Raj Griha (and tomorrow, Sarnath!) that I really just want to spend time doing what I originally set out to do decades ago, practicing what Buddha enjoined us to. I'm going to come back to this, particularly where the Pali Tipitika is concerned, but also, I think it's time to question some assumptions we all might have about exceptionalism on the parts of the different schools we encounter.
Buddha never called himself a Buddhist, by the way. For that matter, the term "Buddhist" is a western construct. It's safe to say that he just wanted people to be fully awake like himself. Right there, this puts a lie to the pejorative "hinayana" that "mahayanists" still append to the Theravadins. Of necessity, Buddha's teachings cannot be only for oneself; I ask my mahayana and vajrayana brothers and sisters to go back to the Nikayas or at least the "Metta Sutta" and ask themselves some serious questions.
Lastly, and this is major bone to pick with my Tibetan teachers: the claim is made repeatedly that all the Buddhist teachings from India are found in the Tangyur. Not the Pali suttas (the Dhammapada, yes; and the Vinaya, but no suttas). One story is that Gendun Choephal translated the Pali canon, but the translation was never found. Yes, the Tibetan collection is the most thorough, perhaps, but any claims for completion need to be put aside. This isn't a slam, but a call to people, particularly practitioners in the west, to question claims and find out what's factual and what's not.